A New Kind of Bartending School, with a Noble Mission
There were few solid economic opportunities and professions open to a black man living in the Jim Crow South — few which offered him the chance to rise above his unchosen societal station. So it seems strange that prior to Prohibition, the South was the only region which willingly encouraged the employment of African American men behind the bars of private clubs and high-end hotels — including Louisville native son, Tom Bullock.
Bullock was born in Louisville in 1872 to former slaves — his father had been a Union soldier. Little is known about his life beyond these scant facts other than he was a well-respected bartender who had worked stints at the Pendennis Club and possibly its rival Kenton Club in Louisville before moving to St. Louis. It was in St. Louis where Bullock’s groundbreaking achievements begin. He served cocktails to dignitaries, wealthy elites and even a former President of the United States at the famed St. Louis Country Club. In 1917, his cocktail book titled “The Ideal Bartender” was published. It was the first cocktail book written by an African American.
“The Ideal Bartender” contains 173 pre-Prohibition cocktails including, according to historian David Wondrich, the predecessor to the the gimlet, the Gillette. The book is a glimpse into cocktails a mere two years prior to the Volstead Act in 1919 which enforced the 18th Amendment and the subsequent 13 dry years that followed. Its importance as one of the last pre-Prohibition cocktail books published, and the fact that it was written by a black bartender during Jim Crow, underscores its cultural and historical significance to an industry that today is a melting pot of the world’s population.
On February 22, 100 years since his groundbreaking book was published, Tom Bullock will be honored in the city of his birth with a free seminar presented by Louisville historian Michael Jones. The seminar promises to bring to light previously unknown details about the bartender. The day will bring one more honor to the man who lived nearly his entire life within the confines of Jim Crow with the launch of The Ideal Bartender School founded by Copper & Kings owner Joe Heron. Heron hopes the school will become Bullock’s living legacy.
The school, which begins class on May 10, will provide up to 20 disadvantaged Louisville-area residents with a 14-week course on the tenets of cocktails, spirits and bartending free of charge. It’s part of a Louisville and service industry-wide initiative to help bring financial opportunities to marginalized and economically disadvantaged people in the area.
We sat down with Heron and The Ideal Bartender School’s course director Jenn Desjardins to talk about the program and what they hope to achieve for the students who are chosen to participate.
How did you develop the idea for The Ideal Bartender School? Why Tom Bullock?
Heron: Bullock being a son of Louisville, an African American bartender and a published author during the early 20th-century was so interesting and inspiring to us. In 2016, we began integrating his cocktails into our events at Copper & Kings to honor him. He is part of Louisville’s spirit. This year being the 100th anniversary of the publication of his book, The Ideal Bartender, we wanted to do more to celebrate his legacy and help promote diversity in Louisville's service industry.
Bullock’s determination to succeed in a world that didn’t offer much for a black man during that period in American history, is inspiring. We want to give that inspiration and opportunity to 20 people in Louisville who may not have the means to afford a course like this. His legacy continues with the school and through these people.
How do you determine who qualifies to participate in this program?
Heron: I want to make it very clear that we will not discriminate based on race, gender or religion. This comes down to income disparity. Are you in a dire financial situation or living in or just above the poverty line? Desjardins can talk more about the outreach we’ve been doing in the community regarding the school.
Desjardins: We are focusing our outreach in the communities west, south and southwest of downtown Louisville. These areas tend to be majority African-American and Latino. We’ve also been reaching out to refugee agencies as well as women’s shelters. So far the feedback from these communities has been very positive.
Will the program be open to people outside of Louisville?
Heron: At the moment, we’re only taking applicants within Louisville and the surrounding area.
Talk about the how the course will be structured. What will these students be learning?
Desjardins: The school begins on May 10 and ends in mid-August. Each week, students will attend a three-hour course on a particular subject. For instance, one week might deal with whiskey, another week might deal with how to provide proper service which will include how to upsell and the importance of teamwork, another week might delve into bar techniques and tools. There will also be tastings and labs for more hands-on learning.
Heron: The brandy course we’ll be providing will include the history of the category, where each type is made, the differences between brandy and Cognac, the distillation process, drinking styles and even the differences between California brandy and American brandy and Cognac and armagnac. This will include tastings and the making of classic cocktails like a Sidecar, Sazerac or Brandy Old Fashioned.
The courses will teach practical and technical skills behind the bar as well as expose students to products and background information on spirits and cocktails which will help prepare them for a bartending job and enable economic mobility.
The students of The Ideal Bartending School will learn things from how to make classic cocktails like the Sazerac to the history of brandy to the basics of hospitality. (Photo: Courtesy of Copper & Kings.)
Who will be teaching?
Heron: Cooper & Kings is hosting the school and is its creator but this is a Louisville-wide, service industry initiative. We will teach all of the brandy and cognac classes. Brown-Forman is teaching the whiskey classes including bourbon, Scotch and Irish. They’re also doing agave-based spirits. Fred Minnick has agreed to teach our rum classes. Sam Cruz from Against the Grain Brewery will be teaching beer and Chea Beckley, beverage director at Proof on Main, is teaching wine. Everyone is donating their time and resources to the school. It says a lot about the fraternal nature of Louisville’s service and spirits industries.
Talk about how the application process will work and what will determine a student’s acceptance into the program.
Desjardins: While we will take up to 20 students, if we find only eight applicants qualified, then that will be the final number for this year. This is going to be an extensive, rigorous 14 weeks. You really have to want to be there as we want them to use what they’ve learned to leverage themselves and build a career behind the bar.
The initial application will consist of 10 questions which gives us an overall picture of each person applying. Following this, there will be in-person interviews with myself, Heron and a few bar managers who also do the hiring at their bars. We want their opinions. The interviews will be looking at not only the answers in their application but things like are they on time, do they look sharp or take pride in their appearance, do they seem engaged?
Heron: If you don’t seem to be making an effort or seem disciplined, it will be very difficult for you to work in hospitality. But just in talking with people you can begin to develop a sense of that person and whether they can work within a team, can be on time, follow through on homework, are they making an effort with their appearance. These all count in hospitality. So, come into the interview process really wanting it. Make our selection process hard!
What is the overall goal for students at the end of the 14 weeks?
Desjardins: We would love to be able to place these students around Louisville upon graduation but that’s also up to them getting the job. Copper & Kings hosts a lot of private events. We will be utilizing these students to help give them a chance to flex their muscles as well as get some real world experience.
Heron: Louisville’s service industry is very tight-knit. We are all friends. This affords us the ability to help someone get their foot in the door. Also, there are over 20 hotels being built in Louisville right now. When they all open, there will be a need for bar staff. This program will give these people the leg up they need to possibly land a job at one of these brand new hotels. This program will inject skills into a group of people who otherwise might not have had this type of opportunity.
One our signature events at Copper & Kings is the MixTape cocktail competition. We ask bartenders from cities around the country to choose their favorite album and two songs from the album and then make cocktails based on the songs. The finalists come to Louisville to compete and attend the Forecastle Music Festival. We will be doing a similar MixTape at the finale of The Ideal Bartender School in August where we’ll invite the media and Louisville’s service industry to come and enjoy the students’ cocktails.
What does the hospitality industry have to offer marginalized and economically disadvantaged people that other industries may not?
Heron: I think the hospitality industry is populated by more open-minded people. They are creative and more understanding and accepting of the differences between people. We’re all dreamers.
To open a restaurant or a bar, or in my case, a spirits company, you have to be a dreamer. Maybe a little bit crazy, too. [He laughs.] You can enter this business as a dishwasher and if you have the drive, the vision and the determination, you can elevate yourself to become a bar manager, a general manager or eventually, an owner. The trajectory is high. You go as far as you want to go. That’s the whole point behind The Ideal Bartender School. Like Bullock, we want to give people on the fringes of society a foot in the door and welcome them into the fold.